Army reaffirms safety of Utah disposal plant

November 22, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The Army said yesterday that, contrary to allegations from a fired official, safety has not been compromised at a chemical weapons disposal plant in Utah that is a model for a plant planned at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Steven W. Jones said after he was fired by a defense contractor in September that "catastrophic" accidents could occur at the Utah plant. His allegations stoked an already intense debate over how to disarm the nation's chemical weapons stockpiles at eight U.S. sites, including the 72,000-acre proving ground northeast of Baltimore.

Mr. Jones said safety procedures at the Utah plant were flawed and that design problems at the $1 billion facility could lead to serious accidents.

The debate is critical for the Army as it prepares to build its next incinerator in Alabama and others before the end of the decade. Construction on the proving ground plant is scheduled to begin in 1998, with burning to commence in 2001.

The $10 billion "demilitarization" effort, which is years behind schedule and billions over budget, is overseen by an Army agency at Aberdeen.

In an inch-thick report released yesterday, Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Garrett, director of Army safety, said investigators visited the Utah plant at the Tooele Army Depot near Salt Lake City between Oct. 3 and 14. "We found a plant that is about where it should be, given the projected start date for full operations," he said.

As the Army released its report, officials also said that a rocket drained of nearly all of its deadly nerve agent exploded Saturday at its prototype incinerator on Johnston Island, about 700 miles southwest of Hawaii. The Army said there were no injuries and no chemical releases outside a thick-walled containment room.

"This again demonstrates the inherent safety built into the design" of the incinerators, said Col. James Coverstone, director of the Army Chemical Demilitarization and Remediation Activity at Aberdeen.

From his home in Lehi, Utah, Mr. Jones said yesterday that he was not surprised by the Army findings: "It's a very pro-Army report."

Mr. Jones stressed that the Army still has not addressed alleged design flaws, including such things as crumbling of fire brick inside furnaces, a condition that he says could cause serious accidents. In its report yesterday, the Army recommended examination of the alleged design flaws by the Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, a private group in Washington that contends Mr. Jones was fired for speaking out about safety deficiencies said the Army is refusing to release a separate inspection report that verifies his allegations.

The Government Accountability Project has filed a formal appeal for the release of the report prepared by the Army inspector general's office. That report resulted from a four-day safety inspection of the plant in mid-August, a month before Mr. Jones was fired.

The Sun also has sought release of the inspector general's report under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The Army denied the request last month, saying the report contained "internal, predecisional recommendations and opinions." The Sun has appealed the denial.

Within days of his firing, Mr. Jones, a recognized expert in the safety of military chemical and nuclear facilities, said environmental and worker protections at the Utah plant were so deficient that operations should be halted until an independent safety review is performed.

Mr. Jones, formerly a top safety official for EG&G Defense Materials Inc., the contractor that will operate the Utah plant when it is fired up next September, accompanied Army inspectors on the mid-August tour.

"They were alarmed," Mr. Jones said.

But congressional staffers who have read the inspector general's report or been briefed on its contents said the team did not find major safety deficiencies.

"Right now, there is nothing to justify interruption of the incineration process," said Robert Lockwood, an aide to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

"The thing that is not even hinted at in the [inspector general's] report is that there is some sort of imminent safety problem out there," said another congressional staffer, who declined to be identified.

Mr. Jones worked as a safety expert for the Army inspector general before he took the job with EG&G. Although Mr. Jones says he was fired for refusing to ignore safety deficiencies, EG&G says he was dismissed because of "differences in management style and philosophy."

Mr. Jones' allegations prompted inquiries by the House Armed Services Committee, Utah environmental and worker-safety agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to the Army report yesterday.

Last month, Mr. Jones filed a complaint with the U.S. Department Labor, claiming his firing violated federal environmental laws that protect "whistle-blowers."

The Labor Department's Utah office ruled Nov. 2 that there was no evidence that Mr. Jones' firing was discriminatory. A hearing has been scheduled for next month before an administrative law judge.

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